To whom do the world’s political leaders look to when forming their values and principles and to what extent do they listen to their advisors?
Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) through his unparalleled leadership skills, military tactics and charm captured nearly the entire known world before he died aged 33. Between the ages of 13 and 16 he was personally tutored by Aristotle, the leading philosopher and physicist of the age. It is impossible to know to what extent the words and lessons of Aristotle influenced the young Alexander but we know that it fuelled his first campaign as ruler into Persia with the intent of enslaving the ‘Barbarians’ (literally meaning non-Greek, Aristotle taught that they were natural slaves, incapable of anything other than a hedonistic lifestyle left to their own devices) and that long into Alexander’s adult life he collected plants and animals wherever he went for scientific observation. Alexander went down in history as one of the most powerful megalomaniacs the world has ever known. Aristotle is still studied today as the founder of rational thought and one of the most influential philosophers of all time.
Around four hundred years after the death of Aristotle, Rabbi Akiva was born in the north of modern day Israel. Akiva started out in life as a shepherd and had no formal education of any kind. It wasn’t until the age of 40 that, under the tutelage of Rabbi Eliazer, Akiva took to study and went on to be one of the leading Rabbis in the rebirth of Judaism post the destruction of the Second Temple. Around the same time as Akiva was creating a name for himself as a leading scholar (writing and contributing parts of the Mishnah) harsh measures were being taken against the Jews. Hadrian had decided upon a policy of Hellenization to integrate the Jews into the Roman Empire. Circumcision was prohibited, a Roman colony (Aelia) was founded in Jerusalem and a temple to Jupiter was erected over the ruins of the Second Temple (Which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, around 60 years previous). Angered by these measures the Jews started a rebellion led by Simeon Bar Kokhba.
Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kokhba’s revolt against the Romans and even went as far as calling him the Messiah. Whilst the revolt ultimately failed and Bar Kokhba killed in 135 CE it was initially highly successful and managed to recapture Jerusalem from the Romans in 132 CE, defeating the Roman armies stationed there. As with the Aristotle-Alexander the Great relationship, reliable history cannot tell us precisely how much influence Rabbi Akiva had over Bar Kokhba. We do know however that Akiva’s messianic ideas about him stuck and that Bar Kokhba was an imperious dictator who was in charge of both the army and the economy during the Jewish revolt. It can be assumed that part of his ability to command came from his endorsement as the messiah by one of the leading Rabbis of the time.
Both Bar Kokhba and Alexander the Great were superb military tacticians who won many battles against the odds, charmed and won over populations becoming figures of great legend. Both however had the backing of the leading thinkers of their time. In the past, dictators ruled over their people and the advice they sought was from a select few. In this enlightened age of liberal democracies, leaders must listen to their voting population or face defeat at the polls. It is therefore our duty to advise our leaders on what we see as right, following in the footsteps of the political advisers of the past who sought to combine philosophy and leadership in creating a moral nation state.